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Has the sector taken the beauty ideal of fruit and vegetables too far?

Late in July, some people in the Netherlands were horrified to discover that a plum grower couldn’t sell 60,000 kilograms of plums to retail -because they were three millimetres too small. Shortly thereafter, Greenco showed its wrinkly and dented snack tomatoes, and after that came yellow cauliflowers and unusual bell peppers.If this long, dry and hot summer taught us anything, it’s that potatoes, fruit and vegetables are natural products. The fact that minorities and underdogs will always get sympathy from large groups of people, even when it concerns fruit and vegetables, caused quite a bit of consternation.

source: Gerrit Krebaum

The story behind the summer drama of anomalous fruit and vegetables became trending. National media were full of stories about sad and misshapen fruit and vegetables and the (too) strict supermarket requirements, which once again boosted the debate about food waste. Has the sector taken the beauty ideal for fruit and vegetables too far, and how bad is it to reject fruit and vegetables?

Fruit and vegetables that don’t end up on retail shelves is often labelled ‘lost,’ but according to GroentenFruit Huis, no product is lost in principle. Differing products are sold using three channels:

  1. They’re sold to industry to be processed into, for example, applesauce, food supplements and cosmetic articles;
  2. They’re offered to the Food Bank (this is also the case for unsold Class I and II products);
  3. Part is sold to locally interested private people who consume them quickly or process them into various products like jams and spreads.

If all this isn’t successful, the products are offered as feed, or used for fermentation in the worst case.

Yet sometimes there’s too much product and the market can’t absorb it. Removing product that hasn’t been sold from the market has been happening for a long time, and is a complex problem.

Fruit and vegetables aren’t wasted in principle, but devalued. When fruit and vegetables are rejected based on appearance, some people think it’s unfair. Someone who’s been pleading for ‘equal rights for fruit and vegetables’ is Chantal van Engelen of Kromkommer. She and the Krommunity that has now arisen, which includes a lot of growers, wants people to look at the quality of fruit and vegetables differently. Beauty can be found within, flavour and quality of anomalous products is fine, after all. Kromkommer thinks fruit and vegetables grown to be consumed but not used to that end are wasted food.

Quality requirements are advantageous
Are standards necessary for fruit and vegetables? Within Europe, there’s a general trade standard containing quality requirements and which establishes minimum requirements regarding quality, such as whether the product is intact, healthy, free of blights and more. For 11 varieties of fruit and vegetables, a specific standard is in place that makes a distinction between classes (extra, I and II), and which assesses characteristics such as size, shape and intactness. This concerns citrus fruit, peaches and nectarines, strawberries, kiwi fruit, lettuce and curled endive, grapes, bell pepper, tomatoes and apples.

The European trade standards don’t lead to food waste, according to GroentenFruit Huis. “About 95 per cent of all fruit and vegetables in Northwestern Europe is packed as Class I. The remainder is practically all Class II. Only a very small percentage isn’t good enough for these standards, because of, for instance, damages or decaying spots. These products can’t enter the market for consumption, and are separated from healthy products so that these don’t get infected as well.” According to GroentenFruit Huis, the quality requirements offer many advantages: “They improve transparency on the market and contribute to a fair trade. They contribute to a high-quality production and therefore serve the interests of the consumers. They offer a clear distinction in quality so that producers can get the prices they deserve. They ensure uniform product definitions. The standards guarantee quality control: products with a poorer quality and/or damages are not or hardly mixed with the undamaged products.”

A clear classification contributes to a more efficient and therefore more sustainable and product-specific packaging and logistics. The production (circumstances and techniques) is also adapted to that, and seed improvement occurs for resistance, flavour, size and more. All of this in the interest of a good quality, which in the end will create the highest possible added value in the supply chain from grower to consumer. Products without (this) value are not produced, harvested and packed as a rule.

No more rejections this summer
Waste due to European trade standards is limited (in the Netherlands) compared to percentages mentioned in public discourse. Kromkommer talks about ten per cent, and a study recently conducted by the University of Edinburgh even talks of 33 per cent. This can’t be due to European trade standards. In 2017, the KCB (the Dutch Quality Control Bureau) conducted 775,156 inspections, and in 0.03 per cent of all cases, batches were rejected for the market due to cosmetic aspects. In the past summer period, there weren’t noticeably more rejections than in previous years, according to Jean Crombach, technical manager of the KCB. “We naturally see the weather influences reflected in the quality, but this didn’t lead to higher rejection percentages. A pear variety such as Conference has small fruits, so these get to be quite small according to trade standards. For plums, for example, a standard size hasn’t been established in the trade requirements. It’s therefore not a point of attention for us, we just look at whether the trade quality is decent according to the standard.”

In the trade itself, there’s a dynamic between demand, supply, quality requirements and expectations. Whether a product meets these often depends on the inspection department of the receiving batch inspector, according to Gerard Breed of JH Wagenaar. “To what extent do they consider the influences of the weather, and are they willing to deviate from specifications. Experience teaches us that seasoned inspectors keep circumstances in mind more, and are less strict regarding specifications. On the other hand, there are also inspectors that play by the books regarding specifications, and who might sent product back. This decision might not fit the climatological circumstances at that time, so that the product falls outside the specifications regarding size and quality. A similar rejection offers us as industry supplier the option of selling these products to the processing industry. The rejection can often be debatable between supplier and receiver, but it could still be fine for the processing industry. Specifications should be adjustable regarding seasonal and climatological influences. Fortunately, this is often the case now.”

The small plums, pears, yellow cauliflowers, many varieties of fruit and vegetables were in trouble this long, hot summer, and the news was dominated by them. Reason enough for ZLTO to launch the action ‘Hot Summer Harvest’ in cooperation with Food Heroes, Fruit Packing Zeeland, Monie Uien and Fruitmasters. Retailer Agrimarkt joined the action, followed by Dutch supermarket chains PLUS, COOP and Albert Heijn. Three-star fresh produce specialist Gerrit Krebaum thinks differently, weather influences are no excuse to adjust quality standards.

Yvonne van Asselt, Corporate Communication & MVO Manager of COOP:
“We understand it’s a major problem for the market, and it’s such a waste to throw out entire batches of food. Besides, consumers want to see stocked shelves. So it’s important that we think with the growers for two reasons. Examples of products we took in are courgettes and pears. We’ve also been more flexible regarding the sizes of onions, iceberg lettuce and fennel, for instance. We set up special shop floor communications, to inform customers properly. This also creates more understanding from customers. It’s naturally been a very current topic this summer, so that there already is a lot of understanding. This also became apparent from customers’ reactions.”

Debbie Huisman, MVO Specialist of PLUS supermarkets:
“Our suppliers actively inform us of situations in the fields and greenhouses. Adjustments are made for a number of products regarding the regular specifications as a result of the dry and warm summer weather. Various fruit and vegetables are temporarily a bit smaller or larger or don’t look as beautiful because of the hot and dry summer. We adjusted the specifications slightly, shape can be a bit different now. Once everything is back to normal, specifications will also go back to what they normally are. Circumstances were truly extreme for the Netherlands, so it’s difficult to meet regular specifications.

This concerns products including broccoli, Elstar apples, ready-to-cook Nieuwe Oogst potatoes and chips, leek and lettuce. We don’t switch to foreign for these products. The Netherlands is the production country of Europe during this period, and besides, the rest of Northern Europe has the same problems. Southern Europe only starts these products in September. Additionally, we bought a surplus of 60,000 kilos of tomatoes and 25,000 kilos of Triomphe de Vienne pears from our permanent growers, so that this Dutch harvest isn’t lost either. These pears were sold in PLUS supermarkets.”

“We used shelf communication. We want to show that we are committed to helping our growers and preventing food waste. Consumers are used to products looking perfect nowadays. Communication helps explain why something looks different. A lot of consumers are very open to this.”

“From sales figures and responses via our Consumer Services and social media, we can conclude that consumers feel positive about how we’re dealing with the consequences of the hot and dry summer weather. For that matter, the smaller, larger and/or slightly less beautiful products are ‘just’ Class I products to us, our suppliers and the growers. We don’t make concessions to quality. We don’t sell products when there are direct consequences for quality and shelf life, such as moulds.”

Pauline van den Brandhof, External Communication Albert Heijn:
“We’re helping our suppliers. We have long-term partnership agreements with our suppliers and growers. We have good contacts with them and we’re constantly in talks with them. When adjustments are needed, we can ensure them depending on the situation. For example, we can classify the products under out ‘buitenbeentjes’ (misfits) brand for these kinds of things.”

“We are flexible and can offer ad hoc solutions as well. For example, on 27 July we bought 5,000 kilos of plums from farmer Kees in Zeeland. We’ll process these into 36,000 jars of jam. They’ll be available in our shops some weeks from now. Joep of the anti-food waste company Potverdorie! is participating in the project and will turn the plums into jam.”

Gerrit Krebaum, greengrocer’s De Braacken:
Gerrit Krebaum has a fruit production company and turned his farmer’s shop into a three-star fresh produce specialist shop. He doesn’t understand the #Hetezomeractie (#Hotsummeraction). His vision only allows for the best quality. This is the case for both the products he grows and the products in his shop. “I recognise that it’s been a difficult year, but in the end, customers have to be able to blindly trust that you always supply the best quality. In our shop, we don’t have the ambition to be the cheapest, but to supply the best quality. Quality should always be as high as possible, and that’s why I won’t accept poorer quality due to extreme weather circumstances. I’m willing to pay the right price for that. A good quality iceberg lettuce could easily cost €2.50 in my shop. I can explain this price to customers, but price isn’t their first priority anyway.”

As a fruit grower, Gerrit also experiences the influence of the weather and the damages it can cause. “You’ll do your best, and if the weather is against you, that’s just something you’ll have to accept, you’ll be growing Class II. Currently, Zeeland has a number of fields where pears on the trees are small, because the fruit production doesn’t have enough fresh water at its disposal. As an entrepreneur, you have to bear that in mind in advance, and you have to reckon in that there will be poorer years. Winners have a plan, losers always have an excuse.”

About the #Hetezomeractie: “This gives failures a platform, which I can’t understand. The Netherlands is a frontrunner in the field of qualitative fruit and vegetables, and we have a good reputation abroad, but now we’re looking for a solution for the poorer products. We’re putting even more focus on price this way, and in the end, it won’t be good for the primary sector in the long term. However, I do understand why supermarkets are joining in on this. They have every right to use these kinds of matters as a marketing tool. What retailer wouldn’t want to buy product for next to nothing, give it a playful name like ‘misfits’ and then sell it with an even better margin?”

The image of the failed harvests has an effect that will last. “I recently got the request from a primary school to supply Class II apples so that the children could learn that these taste just as well as Class I. This is truly something I can’t condone. Of all consumers, children are the most critical. If it has a spot or scratch, they won’t eat it, and therefore they won’t learn to appreciate fruit and vegetables. Children have to be given the most flavourful and best fruit, so that they’ll eat more fruit and vegetables. Besides, a Class II doesn’t just look less tasty, in many cases it actually doesn’t taste as well. Class II could easily be a ripe fruit with a mealy flavour, or a green Elstar that grew low in the tree, so it never saw sunlight. Different people want different things, and to each their own. I think quality will always win.”

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